Ranking amongst states with the highest literacy rate and sex ratio, Kerala is often touted as a progressive bastion in India. The state also made news in the past year due to the ‘woman power’ of its former health minister KK Shailaja and her handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But underneath the Human Development statistics and news headlines lies the reality of Keralite women, which is very similar to their peers across the country.
Earlier this week, the death of 24-year-old Vismaya after facing dowry-related abuse at the hands of her husband has provoked outrage in the country. Disturbing details began to surface over how her husband was unhappy with the brand-new car worth Rs 11 lakh given as part of the dowry along with 1.2 acre of land and 100 sovereigns of gold. Before she passed away, she had sent images of her injury marks and scars to her family and asked for help. While many were shocked at the prevalence of these crimes even in 2021, for many women, this was just an average day of living in a patriarchal society.
Vismaya is not alone. 2020 data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that every hour, one woman becomes a victim of dowry death in India. Every four minutes, a woman is subjected to cruelty by her husband and/or in-laws. Just as the news coverage over Vismaya was gaining steam, another dowry death of 24-year-old Archana was reported in Thiruvananthapuram. The victim’s family alleged that she was driven to suicide by her husband after repeated demands for money.
The burden of being a girl child
Despite the power of education in helping prevent early as well as child marriages, Kerala starkly proves otherwise. Between January 2019 to July 2020, only over 200 child marriages were prevented by the Department of Women and Child Development. 2017 data from the Kerala vital statistics report showed that nearly 23,000 girls below the age of 19 had given birth that year. Local media also reported a spurt in marriages as the government contemplated raising the legal age of marriage for women to 21. These numbers all point to early marriage as the accepted norm in the state. But for the women involved, it often means compromising on the time to establish their careers and build financial stability for themselves.
“We just want to complete our responsibilities,” is the most common excuse that parents use when asked about pushing their daughters into early marriages. From the moment a girl is born, they are seen as a burden that must be transferred from her father’s property to her husband’s property. No amount of ‘beti bachao, beti padhao,’ (save girls, teach girls) can save girls from the shackles of patriarchal expectations. Some accept their fate, others are emotionally blackmailed into it, eventually knowing that a marriage awaits them after they cross the threshold of 18 years.
Breaking the stigma around separation
It’s been over 60 years since the act of giving dowry has been prohibited in India. Yet, families still do not respect their daughters enough to avoid adding in material possessions to sweeten the business transaction called wedding.
Vismaya’s brother told the local media that people can blame them for giving dowry but “reality is different.” He added that the practice of giving dowry needs to end and no other woman should suffer this fate.
Today, dowry is passed off as a ‘gift to the daughter’ but given in the name of the son-in-law or a status symbol to boast about. It is also reflective of the way most people in the Indian community raise their sons versus their daughters.
From the time he is young, a boy is used to being served all his meals, and having all the household chores taken care of by either his mother or the help. Girls, on the contrary, are subject to strict curfews and prevented from stepping out often, living overly sheltered lives under the shadow of their male family members.
They are also used to shouldering a disproportionate share of the unpaid labour and brought up with the expectation that they will take on a larger share when they are married off into a new home. Despite this, material possessions are an expected gesture from the bride’s family. The expectations only pile on from there on.
Vismaya being abused by her husband was no secret. When they had first separated, the couple was brought together and made to reconcile by the Nair Service Society, reported a Malayalam daily. She had sent pictures of her injuries to her cousin and asked him to pick her up while her husband was away. She had called her mother begging for money to pay her examination fees and had also told her about how she was bleeding due to the abuse. Upon being asked to return home by her mother, she said, “What will people say?”
That one thought has ruined the lives of millions of Indians. Whether it’s about worrying over marks or marrying someone outside caste or even daring to leave a marriage — “what will people say?” is an obstacle for those who grow up learning that they must put society first and their own selves second.
As Vismaya and Archana’s families navigate their grief, there is hope for others to learn a valuable lesson from these unfortunate stories. The life of a person is invaluable and walking out of a marriage does not diminish it in any way. Support your loved ones if they confide in you about abuse and intervene before things take a turn for the worse.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)